Milk and blood: Visions of St. Harvey

By Marke B.

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This week, as part of our Milk Issue, dedicated to the political memory of Harvey Milk, I take a look at some of the ways Harvey has been transformed into an icon of queer martyrdom — for good or ill. I cheekily reference the extremely moving 2004 “Saint Harvey: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Gay Martyr” show at the GLBT Historical Society, which will also open a temporary exhibit about Harvey on the Castro beginning November 26, in conjunction with the nationwide release of the Milk movie.

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From “Saint Harvey: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Gay Martyr.”

I also talk about influential young photographer Leo Herrera from queer collective Homochic‘s appropriation of the suit that Harvey was shot in. He displayed his impressionistic shots of that precious relic in his 2007 “San Francisco: Sex & Icons” show at Magnet in the Castro, and also assembled them in a short film titled My Name is Harvey Milk, whose soundtrack is Harvey’s recording of his own will right before he was murdered. I asked him to share some of his thoughts via email from his temporary base in NYC about his show, about Harvey as icon, and also Harvey’s “martyrdom” status.

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Harvey suit image (and all images below) by Leo Herrera

Leo Hererra: Basically I went to the Martyr exhbit at the GLBT Historical Society in ’04 and saw the suit for the first time with my brother Allan and my mother. I was completely floored not only by the way the suit was exhibited but also by the humble surroundings of the Historical Society itself. I approached them and told them that I wanted to work with them in any capacity that they needed, and they let me know that they could use a lot of help, especially from people my age. I told them I wanted to do a series of images based on gay culture and they arranged for me to shoot whatever I wanted.

Allan and I arrived and shot a lot of the relics that they have there, and I finally got the balls to ask them to shoot the suit.*

Soooo, imagine Allan and I opening up the box and there it was. The whole thing is really scary because the box had all of what he was wearing the night of his assassination, including his socks and tie. I shot some images but they weren’t coming out right, and our hands were shaking the whole time. Finally I told Allan that if we were going to do this right, we better not be afraid to touch it and we finally picked it up. And flakes of gore came off of it because it’s so bloody and gory and they fell on our arms and it went downhill from there, but I remember feeling this really intense creativity and really the spirit of gay culture in many ways.

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We laid the suit on top of a light box and the bullet holes from the shots that went through his back shone through, we also put a lamp behind where his heard would be, and did all sorts of arty shit. The funny part was, I really didn’t relate to the images as I shot them and didn’t understand them because I was using a very different aesthetic. I put the images away for a couple of years and when I pulled them out, I realized that the aesthetic of the images was really something more sophisticated than I was used to at the time and that it really matched what I was working with now, they were somehow more mature. So in a way, I had shot the images to be used four years after the fact.

It was all real arty hipster shit.